Land of limited possibilities: climbing training at home

17. May 2021

No place for climbing training at home? After this article there are no more excuses.

Oi, what was that?!? Loud moans, wild gasps and this strange pressing scream. Hmm, new girlfriend? Clicked on a dirty film and accidentally left the speakers on? Wait a moment, no, the voice is male and real men are known to enjoy in silence. So clearly someone is doing climbing training at home!

Which exercises is he doing though? And what kind of torture device does he have in the room? Surely it’s something that he pulls and cramps himself up on. But why does he train at home at all? Maybe because there are still places in Germany where the next bouldering hall and the next rock are not just around the corner ..

The two most important tools – not only for home use

The most important tools are not necessarily of a material nature. Or to put it another way, the “hard” tools are of no use without “soft” and abstract assistive equipment such as a plan and a goal that is as clearly defined as possible. “Climbing better” or “more power” are certainly all well and good, but unfortunately a bit too woolly. The more specific the goal, the more appropriate training plans can be selected or created. Beginners and occasional climbers should question the purpose of climbing training at home and of equipment, because up to the difficulty level of about 6th to 7th grade UIAA, the best training actually consists of simply going for a round on the rock or in the hall. Training at home really makes sense when you have already developed enough “basic strength” to put in extra shifts in your chamber of torture at home on top of your “usual” climbs once or twice a week.

Speaking of chambers of torture: in his bestseller “9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes”, Dave MacLeod advises not to place the gym & fitness equipment in a musty, out-of-the-way corner, but in a way that is as “communicative” as possible and right in the middle of the cosy part of the flat. From this position you can talk, drink tea or watch climbing videos during the breaks between two exercise series. This can turn monotonous basement training into a much more positive and motivating experience.

Creating training opportunities with little effort

Simple but effective. Two wooden balls (bolas) attached to a hangboard.

Even for targeted and planned training, in purely material terms you need less equipment than you think or no equipment at all – depending on what, how versatile and how specific you want to train. Ultimately, you can even turn various everyday objects such as a door or a table into sports equipment on which you can do a lot of pulling, pushing and holding exercises. You can also make several out of one piece of equipment, for example by hanging a towel or a few rings around a pull-up bar and thus creating further grip variations for more dynamic exercises. Anyone who is active in sports is sure to have noticed the bodyweight trend, which promotes training with one’s own body weight and is creating a stir under names such as “Fit without equipment” or “Freeletics”. And in my opinion, it’s a good trend, because you can achieve a lot with little effort and almost no money, even in the area of climbing. Even if it’s just the following really good warm-up and strengthening exercise for hands and forearms:

Upper arms on torso, forearms bent 90°, palms facing down. Now stretch your fingers as far as possible and spread them out, then pull them together as tightly as possible to form a fist. Now repeat the whole thing as quickly and firmly as possible: Open, close, open, close, 50 to 100 times. Hands and forearms should be on fire after 2-3 series :-)

It is pleasingly easy to create an efficient basic training and to gain the “basic strength” just mentioned. However, it turns all the more complicated when it comes to fine-tuning, which becomes necessary at the latest when certain weaknesses become more apparent as progress is made. You will then have to decide what to train instead of continuing blindly. Is there a lack of pulling force in the upper arms? Of holding power in the fingers? Of stability in the torso, known as the “core”? Or several at the same time? And what about the supporting muscles, the antagonists and the mobility?

In view of these many questions, possibilities and sources of error, it makes little sense to quickly slap a random fretboard over your door and start muddling along with some “super-strong-in-three-months plan”. That’s how I tried it many years ago and, looking back, I suspect it contributed to a stubborn elbow problem rather than an explosion in performance. At that time, I had no idea about the variety of gym & fitness equipment. That is why I have listed a few for you here, ordered by increasing installation effort:

  • Training without equipment from towel up to door frame
  • Pull-up bar
  • Sling trainers and rings
  • Pegboard
  • Finger board aka grip board aka fretboard aka hangboard aka zlagboard
  • Holds on walls, ceilings, loft beds and dark corners
  • Campus board

Before we delve into the details here and pick out some toys, we need a few basic comments and general tips. Since the boards especially have a lot of potential for overstraining, frustration and injury if used carelessly.

“The brain is the most important climbing muscle” also applies for training at home.

It is well known that finger boards and the like can be used to train finger strength, arm strength and, with some restrictions, stamina. This is just as clear as the basic rule that it should only be done with thoroughly warmed-up muscles and fingers fully supplied with blood. But how many (pull-up) moves in how many sets, blocks and intervals am I supposed to do now? How long do I hang on to which hold with which arm angle? Should I do more static postures or more dynamic movements? How dynamic – slow or full steam ahead? At what point am I “allowed” to train with finger holes without a blatant risk of injury? What is my personal starting position (performance level, constitution, experience)?

Questions upon questions, which once again make it clear that it is not a good idea to go off the cuff with some ready-made plan fished from the internet or a magazine. Instead, the most extensive use of the brain muscle is called for – just as a certain Wolfgang Güllich once suggested. It is not for nothing that state-of-the-art training books such as “Gimme Kraft” (or “Gimme Kraft Air for beginners”) are not exactly thin and deal with the complex and detailed relationships in many individual steps. In addition, there are more and more good climbers who are using more and more different training methods and strategies and are then happy to recommend them to others. As a beginner, you then find yourself in a maze of sometimes contradictory training tips.

So it’s best to get started “right”, i.e. with a persistent and regular investment of time and energy. Otherwise you might be better off just sticking to getting better by climbing in as many different ways as possible. Or by just having fun without big ambitions – seeing as that’s supposed to be out there, too. Just steer clear of half-measures that lead to failures, motivational gaps and injuries.

The main reason for the complexity of the matter lies in the very many performance-determining factors of climbing. More and more of these are being “discovered” since climbing is increasingly viewed holistically. Starting with the realisation that climbing requires the entire body, including the head and legs, it has now become necessary to carefully examine pretty much everything from sleep to eating habits, from addictions and vices to basic attitudes to life and social situations. It’s not for nothing that the yoga and mindfulness wave is also passing over into climbing. This is quite a good thing, even if it does spread a lot of kitchen psychology and calendar wisdom. It is well worthwhile to at least refrain from ignoring all the “soft” and seemingly incidental factors. Maybe it’s not the wrong periodisation or way of exercising that stands in the way of progress, but the daily three after-work beers, the negatively coloured attitude to life or the regular pot of coffee in the office.

However, all this does not mean that beginners cannot train successfully. It also doesn’t confirm older climbers’ fears, who think there’s nothing left to get after their wild years of youth. In his book, Dave MacLeod refers to top climbers like Stevie Haston and Enzo Oddo, who are in the form of their lives beyond 50(!). In order to achieve top personal form without injury as a beginner at any age, the following general training tips should be followed:

  • Goal setting: A concrete, clearly formulated goal with a fixed point in time. The time at which it is supposed to be achieved constitutes the point of reference that you can always look back on and use as motivational aid. The more specific and detailed it is formulated, the clearer and more transparent the step-by-step implementation becomes. So do not phrase it as “eighth grade by next year”, but instead formulate it as “eighth grade in single pitch climbs at the limestone/sandstone/gneiss of ‘my’ home rocks or any given climb in ‘my’ hall by July 2018.” Even better for motivation are intermediate goals that can be used to measure progress and, if necessary, adjust the final goal up or down.
  • Developing a good connection with your own body. Above all this includes a feeling for the correct use of muscles and muscle groups. This can be attained in particular by really being “present”, i.e. with one’s attention in the body, during all movements. If you are not “fully involved”, you move “uncleanly” and breathe in a too shallow and too compressed fashion. If possible, your breath should not be held and blocked, even during the greatest tension.
  • Muscles get stronger quickly, often after just a few weeks. However, the apparatus of ligaments and tendons takes much longer for this, because, to put it bluntly, its “cell conversion” is slower. You might be completely thrilled about the small grips you can hold onto and not even notice the overstraining. This constitutes another reason for starting slowly and managing strains very carefully.
  • Use only large holds at first. Going all the way and explosive movements can only be incorporated with a well-trained tendon and ligament apparatus.
  • Create variety and diversity, even if this is more difficult than constantly reeling off a routine programme. After all, who wants to be a climbing field idiot?
  • Never look at and train your muscles in isolation, but rather the entire chain of movement, which is only as strong as its weakest link. Of course, this “holistic” approach also includes consideration of the antagonists (e.g., when the biceps contracts, its antagonist, the triceps, is stretched).
  • Create relief opportunities either by using foot benches, slings or beer crates

The list of these tips can be extended arbitrarily and my possibly random selection is based on what seems particularly important to me from personal experience. For a comprehensive perspective, you need either good mentors, one of the training books mentioned here, or extensive online research. It is advisable to start the latter with well-known training luminaries such as Udo Neumann or Guido Köstermeyer. Furthermore, there are good private websites, some of which are linked here. Most of the information online is only incidentally related to home training, but it provides a good basis for getting started with one or more of the following home tools:

Training completely without equipment

Strength training also works without equipment

In the field of bodyweight training, there are many exercises that are suitable for climbing and can contribute a lot of strength. A very simple example is the warm-up exercise “the grab” explained above. Other than that, you can really use whatever your flat has to offer. Besides the door frame, the door itself is also a useful training tool for hanging exercises and pull-ups. Putting a towel over it (only with stable doors) can bring a few grip variations and dynamics into play. The towel is generally a good biceps and forearm trainer: if you stand with your back against the wall, grab one end of the towel with each hand and then place one leg in the sling, you have the starting position for the biceps curl, where you pull your arms up against the resistance of the leg. This is very effective for chest and forearms as well!

Pull-up bar

There really is no excuse to be made here…. The assembly is definitely doable

Many a climber turns up their nose on this topic, because the pull-up bar “has no point”. However, the two-time Russian bouldering world champion Dmitry Sharafutdinov has a different opinion. Sharafutdinov had neither colourful new bouldering halls nor rocks nearby in or near his hometown of Yekaterinburg. Therefore, a large part of his physical conditioning “consisted of semi-specific strength exercises, namely pull-ups, and a hell of a lot of them!”. Dmitry also mentions as important success factors of the training: “Experience and listening to the body!”

The installation is definitely doable, provided there is a reasonably solid door frame. There are poles that are simply placed on the frame and that clamp under load. These usually even have additional side holds. The other standard model has telescopic screw threads and is simply extended to the appropriate length by eagerly turning it and clamping it into the door frame.

Sling trainers and rings

Sling trainers from Aerobis. The anchor loop at the end means it can be attached virtually anywhere.

Slings and rings are notoriously wobbly and therefore offer a very good training that additionally strengthens the stabilising supporting musculature and the entire muscle chains involved. This helps especially with holding really strenuous positions and body tensions in “hardmover” routes. Besides that, you gain gymnastic and acrobatic skills.

What is particularly nice is that you can attach suspension trainers and rings anywhere, whether to large screw hooks in the ceiling or to a sturdy tree in the park. Depending on the desired alignment, you can hang up rings and slings using either two cords (for transverse alignment) or only one (for parallel alignment to the suspension). Should you not be able to hang up anything heavy at home: A door frame with a pull-up bar is feasible even in the worst hovel, ergo suspension trainers and rings can be hung over the pull-up bar. Okay, you might be hanging pretty low and not look your coolest, but a temporary solution like that is still better than no training at all.

You can also hang bolas (exercise ball), towels or anything else that you can use for more or less static or flexible exercise from your pull-up bar.

Pegboard

Who needs a clock on the wall? The pegboard looks so much better.

The pegboard is a wooden cuboid with a grid of holes into which round wooden holds are inserted and pulled out while hanging in the climbing position. This is not intended to evoke sexual associations, but to get a strong upper body. It is a very effective technique without any great risk of injury, as you completely block the timbers for a short time whilst moving hand over hand and keep on inserting. This leads to a very balanced strain on the entire chain of muscles from abdomen to fingers.

With ready-delivered pegboards, the required assembly material is usually included. In the case of the Antworks Ant Hill Pegboard, for example, these are stainless steel Spax screws and Fischer dowels, which are mounted directly into the wall or onto a (free-standing) framing device. You don’t necessarily need a spacer here, as the wooden holds prevent any direct scrubbing of the wall (as long as you don’t do too many pendulum swings).

The one with the many names: Fingerboard

The Zlagboard.Evo from Vertical Life includes a smartphone mounting option and a suitable app

Probably the most common and well-known gym and fitness tool, this is a synthetic resin or wooden structure with a large number of positively (outward) and negatively (inward) shaped holds, bars, tongs, holes and slopers (overlays). Many climbers swear by the grippy texture of the plastic, others find the smoother grip of wood gentler on the skin. There are many possible opportunities for straining and grip combinations for fingers and arms. A small market overview with some training tips can be found in this article on climbing.

Of course, this area is subject to an increasing amount of differentiation as well. For example, hangboards, as the name suggests, offer the possibility of hanging up the board – although this also requires correspondingly stable fixed points. Another special variant is the zlagboard, which comes with a mobile phone holder and an appropriate app to control the training. Despite the “sponsoring” involved, there is a quite critical test report to be found on Ulligunde.com.

Assembly is quick if the masonry is solid: screw a few thick Spax bolts through the holes in the board and into the wall, done. In the best case, you will not even need a drill and dowels. However, if the walls are only made of plasterboard and/or are hollow exactly where you want to put the torture device and/or there is not enough space above the door frame, you will need a substructure. Or, if in doubt, opt for a free-standing frame construction, which will even make you mobile ;-)

Handholds in the wall – a bouldering corner inside the flat

You can always find a place for a few climbing holds

From super simple to highly complicated – anything is possible: a few climbing holds in any sizes, shapes and combinations can be screwed into the smallest corner – always provided that the dwelling does not threaten to collapse under body weight loads.

Drilling directly into the wall is possible, but then requires extremely liberal landlords or plenty of putty when you move out. If the walls can’t take it, a free-standing construction is needed here as well. Given that you have some space, you will always find a way to make it work. Inspiration for this can be found at any children’s playground. Or in the student flat next door, where I’m sure someone will have bolted climbing holds to their loft bed. Other boards, slats, squared timbers and panels can in turn be attached to such stable designs, which serve as a base for holds.

It is best to use solid plywood boards as a base. You could then perforate them with a variety of holes which will enable you to rearrange the holds at any time. The diameter of the holes must of course match the bolts used (usually M10s) and their drive-in nuts on the back of the wall. Small holds and steps can also be fixed directly using Spax bolts. Using a cordless screwdriver for all the screwing is for wimps – it is the perfect opportunity to savour your first finger training.

Campus board

Depending on the number and size of the slats, the campus board allows for an range of static and dynamic pulling and hanging exercises

It was invented by climbing legend Wolfgang Güllich and Jerry Moffatt, another climbing legend, swears by it: the campus board. Dave MacLeod, however, has a not entirely uncritical opinion: “Campus boards are the most dangerous form of training for climbers. (…) almost everyone who trains on the campus board for a long time comes to experience problems with their fingers or elbows sooner or later.”

As always, it is a question of well thought-out and targeted use. Used correctly, the campus board allows for endless static and dynamic pulling and hanging exercises, depending on the number and size of the slats. In addition, depending on the height and quantity of the screwed-on slats, it allows you to climb up and down hand over hand really nicely. However, the requirements for space and sturdiness of the walls or ceilings are, once again, significantly higher than for the fingerboard. Unless you want to scrub along the wallpaper every time you move, you cannot attach it to the wall just like that. On top of this, almost all campus boards hang over slightly, which makes an appropriate substructure or rear construction inevitable. Of course, this must equally be built with appropriately stable wood or metal, which in turn increases the weight.

The few building instructions available on the internet, such as the one at Target10a, mostly refer to real whoppers that you will hardly be able to fit into your own four walls. Besides, German-language instructions usually lack concrete information on how to attach the whole thing. By contrast, English-language instructions such as the rock climber training manual are more concrete.

Images of the rear construction have similar rarity value. In this Wikipedia illustration of a relatively small campus board, they are visible due to a very simple construction of the board. And you can also see that despite the relatively small size, a lot of stabilising metal is already built in. So even with small campus boards, depending on the space available, an extensive hardware store arsenal of mounting rails, beam hangers, frame brackets, consoles, retaining plates, etc. may be necessary. This raises the question, especially for non-peak performing climbers, of whether effort and training benefits remain balanced in the right proportion.

Conclusion

There are a plenty of home training options that can be used to increase a lot of physical performance-determining factors. The limits lie in aspects such as technique, tactics and psyche – you won’t really be able to train these three aspects in a tangible way at home. The only thing that helps with these is to go into the hall and – better still – to the natural rocks.

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